Classroom Technology

Digital-Simulation Game on U.S. Slave Experience Sparks Debate

By Benjamin Herold — March 03, 2015 7 min read
A screen shot from Mission US: Flight to Freedom, the controversial digital learning game about U.S. slavery produced by WNET in New York City.
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An award-winning, publicly funded digital learning game that asks middle school students to assume the role of a black slave in 1800s America is prompting debate about when and how to employ the power of interactive technology to teach about painful eras of history.

In Mission US: Flight to Freedom, players inhabit the fictional character of Lucy King, a 14-year-old girl who is attempting to escape the Kentucky plantation where she and her family are enslaved. The free, Web-based game asks students to make choices that affect the game’s trajectory, within the historical realities of 1848.

“I don’t know that you can really channel the rape, murder, and mutilation of slavery into a game,” said Rafranz Davis, a K-12 instructional technology specialist. She is leading an online and social-media campaign to get the game withdrawn from schools, pending further review.

“I’m not against gaming. I’m against the way this was done,” said Ms. Davis, a former high school teacher who works in the 64,000-student Arlington, Texas, school district.

Mission US has nearly 1 million registered users, according to WNET, the New York City public-television station that produces and distributes the online series. The game includes four “missions,” each of which explores a different era of U.S. history.

“Our goal [with ‘Flight to Freedom’] is for all students to develop a greater respect for African Americans’ struggle and African American history as a part of American history,” Kellie Castruita Specter, WNET’s senior director of communications and marketing, said in a statement. “Although we regret to hear that some people have found the game to be problematic, we stand by it.”

Experts on American slavery and “racial literacy” consulted by Education Week said they welcomed the potential for digital games and other new-media formats to help students explore even the most troubling chapters of the nation’s history—if such games can be used in ways that don’t simply reflect and repeat the deep-rooted problems inherent in some traditional classroom methods.

Simulations of Difficult Subject Matter

Mission US is one of a growing number of “serious games” that aim to put users in real-world situations and to simulate the challenges of solving big problems or understanding complex processes.

Other examples include:

>> EVOKE, a 10-week “crash course in changing the world” that debuted in 2010. Users in this social-network game developed by the World Bank Institute and the prominent game developer Jane McGonigal tackle big issues, such as food security, sustainable energy, and gender inequality.

>> The Migrant Trail, a single-player simulation game released this month and modeled after The Oregon Trail, a wildly popular educational game during the 1980s. Users assume the role of undocumented immigrants or border-patrol agents on the U.S.-Mexican border, with the goal of better understanding both groups’ circumstances and motivations. The game is part of a multimedia campaign associated with the film “The Undocumented.”

>> Papers Please, a “dystopian document thriller” by independent game developer Lucas Pope. Players assume the role of an immigration inspector charged with controlling the flow of people into a fictional communist state after the end of a long war.

>> This War of Mine, a war simulation from an independent game developer, 11 bit studios. Players portray not soldiers, but citizens trying to survive amid snipers, food shortages, and other crises. The game is inspired by the 1992-96 siege of Sarajevo during the Bosnian War.

“We’re already teaching slavery in a way that’s inaccurate, insensitive, and ahistorical,” said James Braxton Peterson, the director of the Africana studies department at Lehigh University, in Pennsylvania.

“I’m actually in favor of a more sophisticated, enhanced version of this game,” he said.

Developed With Historians

Mission US was launched by WNET in 2010. Other “missions” in the series focus on the experiences of a young American colonist in Boston, a teenage member of the Northern Cheyenne tribe, and a turn-of-the-20th-century Russian immigrant.

According to WNET, the content of Flight to Freedom was crafted by a team of historians from the American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning at the City University of New York Graduate Center, in collaboration with two leading African-American scholars, Nikki Taylor and Christopher Moore.

Ms. Castruita Specter, the station communications director, described the game as an “interactive story about enslaved people’s resistance to the system of slavery.”

The Mission US series was developed with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities and major funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which in 2010 awarded WNET a $3.3 million grant to create and disseminate the games.

The money from the CPB was part of a larger effort to promote greater knowledge of American history and civics among students by using technology to deliver engaging content, said Michael Levy, the corporation’s executive vice president and chief strategy officer. Of the CPB’s total grant to WNET, $786,163 went to the development of Flight to Freedom, Mr. Levy said.

“For three years, this game has received nothing but uniform high praise,” he said. “We couldn’t be happier with the outcome.”

Indeed, the Mission US series, which is accompanied by extensive curricular materials and has primary-source documents embedded within its games, has won numerous awards, including the prestigious Minister of Foreign Affairs award from the Japan Prize Foundation, which recognizes scientific and technological contributions that promote peace, in 2013.

The game was also highly rated by Common Sense Media, a San Francisco-based nonprofit whose Graphite website aims to help educators make better decisions about classroom technology.

Until last month, the organization’s official review of the game read: “Parents need to know that Mission US: Flight to Freedom is an age-appropriate, but realistic depiction of life for an African American teenage girl living in the pre-Civil War period. Kids will experience what it’s like to be ordered around by a master, leave family behind to run for freedom, and have to make difficult decisions.

“Some children might find the game experience to be intense,” the review continues. “There is emotional trauma throughout the story. ...”

Common Sense Media officials, however, took down the review following complaints from educators and activists who believe the game is inappropriate and offensive.

“We understand the sentiment that has been expressed about Flight to Freedom, and as a result, we are evaluating whether our review warrants an update to convey the most accurate and current information to our users,” a Common Sense Media spokeswoman said in an emailed statement.

Common Sense Media has also deleted a reference to the game from a blog post published earlier this year that included Flight to Freedom as one of a number of apps and games that teachers could use to “celebrate Black History Month.” That post was how Ms. Davis, who is black, first became aware of the game, she said.

“I felt the pit of my stomach drop,” Ms. Davis said. Her great-great grandmother and great-grandfather, she said, are among her ancestors who endured the horrors of slavery.

“The idea of putting children in that place, thinking of my children, ... I just said: ‘This is where I draw the line. This is not OK,’ ” she said.

Ms. Davis and other critics contend that Flight to Freedom’s interactive-game format minimizes the atrocities associated with the enslavement of millions of people over 245-plus years; that the game’s content is historically unbalanced by not giving equal attention to those who owned slaves or otherwise benefited from the institution of slavery; and that playing the game may be emotionally and psychologically traumatic for children, particularly students of color.

Questions about using games and simulations to teach about genocide and other historical horrors are not new.

Ms. Davis and other critics point to Freedom!, a late-20th-century computer game with a narrative arc similar to Flight to Freedom’s that was developed by the creators of the popular Oregon Trail franchise. That game was eventually pulled from the market. Even so, it prompted a lawsuit by parents of an 11-year-old black student who said their son was humiliated by his peers when the game was used in his classroom. The suit was eventually dismissed.

The Anti-Defamation League has also cautioned against using simulation activities, online or otherwise, to teach about the Holocaust.

New Medium, Old Problem

WNET, however, described Flight to Freedom as “part of a growing body of ‘serious games’ that immerses users in historical and contemporary problems in ways that encourage perspective-taking, discussion, and weighing multiple kinds of evidence.”

While the game does not cover “all the ills of slavery,” the station said in a statement, it does tell “ugly truths,” including “the work regimen of enslaved people, the inhumanity of bondage, the cruelty of abuse, the destruction to families, the physical consequences of disobedience, [and] the impact of psychological damage.”

It also aims to “humanize enslaved people” and portray “enslaved African-Americans with agency and personal power,” according to the statement.

Howard Stevenson, a professor of urban education and Africana studies at the University of Pennsylvania, said he liked the concept of Flight to Freedom, but wants to ensure that educators using the game are skilled at helping students navigate the “racial trauma” they may experience.

“Usually, it’s a feeling almost like a rejection of who I am as a person,” Mr. Stevenson said. “There needs to be a place where you can feel that sense of hurt and get it out.”

Unfortunately, Mr. Stevenson said, many educators lack the sensitivity and skills to help their students do that. But that problem is not unique to the use of digital games, he said.

Mr. Peterson, the Lehigh University professor, agreed. “There are young black children all over the country having alienating experiences in the classroom when reading [about] Huck Finn and Harriet Tubman,” he said. “The critique here should be leveled at how we teach slavery, period.”

Coverage of trends in K-12 innovation and efforts to put these new ideas and approaches into practice in schools, districts, and classrooms is supported in part by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York at Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the March 04, 2015 edition of Education Week as Simulation Game on Slave Experience Provokes Questions


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